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Expert Views: How Australia Can Both Stop Boats and Protect Refugees

As Australia tries to close its offshore detention centers, Refugees Deeply asked several experts to chart a way forward for its policy on refugee boats that would be both effective and humane.

Written by Kim Bode, Charlotte Alfred Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
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Australia’s regional processing center on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.AFP PHOTO / REFUGEE ACTION COALITION

Australia’s refugee policy is facing, in the words of the country’s immigration minister, “the closure of a sad chapter.”

Five years after Australia resumed sending refugees who are intercepted at sea to offshore detention centers in the Pacific, authorities are trying to move the detained asylum seekers off the islands and shut down one center completely by next month.

Because Australia promised never to allow refugees coming by boat into the country, the policy – and the refugees’ fate – still hinges on Donald Trump’s willingness to honor an Obama-era deal to take in the refugees.

The Australian government insists that the policy has worked, by successfully deterring many boats, thus reducing deaths at sea.

Critics point to the well-documented reports of abuse and psychological toll of detention on vulnerable asylum seekers, as well as the resulting damage to Australia’s international standing and the billions of dollars spent on the policy.

As part of our “Expert Views” series, Refugees Deeply asked experts to propose a way forward that would both deter dangerous boat journeys and protect the right to asylum – what would an effective and humane Australian policy on refugee boats look like?

Lisa Button, Asylum Seeker and Refugee Policy and Advocacy Adviser, Save the Children Australia

The polarizing debate on asylum-seeker policy in Australia has led many to assume we must choose between two extremes. The first being uncontrolled maritime borders with asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat or dying at sea en route. The other extreme being maintaining Australia’s cruel deterrence-based policies.

We believe there is another way. With a similar degree of commitment to that which Australia has invested in “stopping the boats,” we could develop a far more humane and sustainable solution.

Australia should lead in the development of a regional protection framework, whereby countries in the region share responsibility for granting legal residence, work rights and access to health care and education to asylum seekers, while increasing the availability of safe passage as well as pathways to long-term solutions like resettlement, local integration, voluntary repatriation and new complementary pathways, including labor schemes.

Boat turn-backs would be replaced with coordinated multilateral search and rescue functions. Expenditure on immigration detention and other deterrent measures (AU$9.6bn from 2013-16; read more in our report At What Cost?) could be reallocated to schemes ensuring that basic needs of asylum seekers are met.

Heather Alexander, Researcher, Tilburg University

We should drastically increase the refugee visa program. Let aboriginal leaders set the new targets. We should also end the costly and pointless detention procedure and use the money to fund integration. Australia is a settler state with a long history of immigration – why stop now?

John van Kooy, Honorary Researcher, University of Melbourne

We should start with stronger collaboration between Australia and its neighbors in the Asia-Pacific region. Partnerships should aim to protect people at risk, efficiently process asylum claims and transparently share migration data. It should also be a priority to provide financial and technical support to agencies like the UNHCR who act as first responders to forced migration.

On the coastline and mainland of Australia, people seeking asylum should be received – not detained – by well-trained public officials, medical professionals and experienced, culturally competent social workers. This would be preferable to outsourcing the government’s duty of care to private security firms, which has created significant health and well-being issues for detainees on Nauru and Manus Island.

Once residing in Australia, all people seeking asylum should have the same rights and entitlements, regardless of their mode of arrival. People who arrive by boat are currently being punished by restrictions, which are designed to “send a message” to other would-be migrants. Unfortunately, this is creating an underclass of people who, only because they arrived on an “unauthorized” boat, are unable to fully participate in social and economic life.

Asher Hirsch, Senior Policy Officer, Refugee Council of Australia

Instead of cooperating with our neighbors to deter asylum seekers, Australia can work within our region to improve refugee protection and reduce the urgent need for people to risk their lives at sea in order to find safety. We have been advocating for an incremental process of change in the Asia-Pacific region, which would begin with the most pressing needs of refugees and move gradually toward an agreed and common regional strategy to protect refugees:

  • Removing current barriers to existing refugee determination processes
  • Creating space for and supporting NGOs to provide vital services to refugees and asylum seekers
  • Granting asylum seekers legal permission to remain while refugee status is determined
  • Developing alternatives to immigration detention
  • Granting refugees and asylum seekers the right to work
  • Providing access to basic government services, including education and health
  • Providing refugees with access to durable solutions
  • Developing national asylum legislation
  • Promoting ratification of the Refugee Convention
  • Building greater regional consistency in asylum processes and protection strategies, supported by equitable sharing of responsibility for refugees, based on national capacity.

Brigid Arthur, Coordinator, Brigidine Asylum Seekers Project (BASP)

Australia has come to define asylum seekers as a problem of security rather than a humanitarian challenge. In fact, as a country, we are a leader in repelling asylum seekers. Public discussions rarely highlight the justice or dignity of each person – no matter who they are. There is a kind of strange dislocation between what we know of the history of the trouble spots of the world and the people who flee those places.

We should move away from a policing model to a protecting model and from a deterrent model to a humane welcoming model. We should also establish safe, orderly and accessible ways to resettle people most at risk so they can avoid the exploitative, unsafe journeys that are the only option currently available. We must ensure reasonable conditions of living while people are waiting for their visa status to be resolved.

Some practical steps Australia could adopt include closing offshore detention centers, increasing intake numbers, managing the backlog of people in Indonesia, improving the process of resolving visa status and depoliticizing asylum seeker management.

The responses have been edited for length and clarity.

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